Evidence can play a central role in the development of successful reforms, but are there ways researchers can boost opportunities for the uptake of their evidence?
This was the key point of discussion at an Impact Initiative organised panel at the recent Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) conference. CIES annual conferences bring together researchers, students, practitioners and policymakers interested in comparative and international education. More than 3,500 delegates gathered to mark the 63rd conference in San Francisco in April.
At the conference, the Impact Initiative organised a panel involving a mix of researchers and policy actors associated with the ESRC-DFID Raising Learning Outcomes Programme. The panel discussed the opportunities and challenges in promoting evidence-based policy and practice.
- Jess Atkinson, Education Advisor, DFID Education and Research Team
- Sue Grant-Lewis, Director, International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) UNESCO
- Erin Murphy-Graham, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley
- Nompumelelo Mohohlwane, Deputy Director: Research, Monitoring & Evaluation, Department of Basic Education, South Africa
The panellists considered the types of impact that can realistically be expected within the short time frame of a research project-cycle, as well as the support needed to ensure it can be sustained in the longer term.
The session was attended by more than 60 researchers and practitioners. One attendee, ESRC-DFID grant holder Professor Melanie Ehren shared some of her reflections in a blog called ‘How to make education research count’.
Perspectives from the panel: The challenges of translating evidence into education policies
Erin Murphy-Graham described her experience of attempts to maximise research impact in Honduras. Using the example of her ESRC-DFID funded research on the Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial or ‘SAT’ model for secondary schools, Erin provided a sobering reality on how long it can take to achieve impact, debunking the myth that good research will be picked up and used. She shared her experience that, despite evidence being shared and disseminated with stakeholders both in Honduras and internationally, it has been met with mixed responses. She urged researchers to think strategically about how to maximize research impact, as well as to have realistic expectations regarding the use of evidence among education policy makers.
Providing a Government perspective, Nompumelelo Mohohlwane described how the world of policymaking can be a ‘black box’ for researchers, for whom inadequate knowledge about the priorities and processes of Government can pose a barrier to conducting research for policy impact. Drawing from examples of recent reform initiatives in South Africa (including ESRC-DFID funded ‘Succeeding against the odds: Understanding resilience and exceptionalism in high-functioning township and rural primary schools in South Africa’ project), where research did inform decision-making process in Government, Nompumelelo argued for the need for researchers to understand policy priorities. For example, by making efforts to understand how government planning, reporting and prioritising happens and by whom. She highlighted that understanding the specific country context in planning, prioritising and reporting is essential.
Jess Atkinson set out a perspective from the UK’s Department for International Development on the policy contexts into which ESRC/DFID-funded research on education feeds. She used examples from ESRC-DFID-funded research TEACh project in Pakistan that found a higher prevalence of children with disabilities in mainstream schools which has been influential in training Punjab Special Education Departments on how to use the Washington Group child functioning survey tool; also in Uganda where local languages were used to promote literacy and to guide the DFID funded Strengthening Education Systems for Improved Learning (SESIL programme). She also spoke on the engagement of the Impact Initiative in promoting a Statement for Action for the recent Global Disability Summit to highlight the way that DFID uses partnerships to access and promote evidence into policy debate. She said that in each case, clear communications and a synthesis of information and data that were immediately available were essential in informing policy discussions and making the most of emerging opportunities.
Making evidence count
Together, the panel provided some key suggestions of how an iterative and collaborative research approach involving a wide range of stakeholders from government, private sector, civil society and non-governmental organisations can be effective in influencing policy change.
Reccommendations for researchers:
- Act for impact from the start, embed strategic thinking about impact from the outset the project
- Don’t only rely on policy briefs, but also to engage with policy actors for the one-to-one translation of evidence
- Understand and respond to the policy environment in which they operate to leverage and build networks for engagement
- Know how government planning, reporting and prioritising happens
- Utilise communications support if available - make information available and accessible
- Identify gaps, areas of focus & areas of collaboration that respond to actual current opportunities
Recommendations for policymakers and practitioners:
- Know how to utilise new evidence, understanding its alignment in the broader social, economic and political contexts
- Know how to use and interrogate data to use it more efficiently
- Identify ways for better coordination and incorporation of evidence into plans and reports nationally and provincially
One question from the audience which sparked a lively debate focused on what the panel thought researchers could do to influence yet strike a good balance between simple and detailed information.
Nompumelelo Mohohlwane responded by saying that there is a risk of oversimplification that some ministers may dislike and that researchers shouldn’t presume that policymakers want the one pager. She urged researchers to focus on providing information which highlights what is new. Jess Atkinson responded by saying there is lots of demand from government for research in specific areas but in DFID countries evidence is often not available. And Erin Murphy-Graham concluded that political interests often overcome good research and that there is a wider picture to understand in terms of potential pushback against reforms and change.
Director of IIEP UNESCO, Sue Grant-Lewis, concluded that the session demonstrated the value of bringing together academic, government and donor perspectives, giving participants an awareness of the challenges facing both researchers and policy makers in promoting evidence-based policy and practice in low-resource settings. She highlighted that a collaborative research approach can be effective in influencing policy change if researchers can better leverage and build networks so that they can understand and respond to the policy environment and for policymakers. She also highlighted that donors and research funders can play a critical role through targeted funding, the promotion of an engaged approach to research design and uptake, and encouraging a culture of learning and sharing.